Friday, May 16, 2014

SPD continues to thumb its nose at reform

The Seattle Community Police Commission has just released a report with the “startling” conclusion that there has been a steep decrease in arrests for low-level misdemeanors in the city. This is “evidence” of deliberate “de-policing” by the Seattle Police Department, and is cause for “concern.” Frankly, I’m not as concerned about this as some people seem to be, since police often use real or imagined minor offenses just to get those they “suspect” might be potential “criminals” into their databases. Much more troubling is that minorities continue to be the principle occupation of police—hardly surprising given the fact that police spend most of their time in minority communities. 

There was a lot of handwringing by the mayor and community representatives, as if they were “surprised” that police would act in this manner, particularly considering their opposition to the consent decree obliging the SPD to conduct reform following an investigation of excessive use-of-force by the Justice Department. In its first semi-annual report in April 2013, the SPD monitor found a great deal lacking. It noted that the SPD did not speak with one voice, and that infighting on the staff level was a “concern.”  

The monitor also found that within union-organized ranks, resistance remained strong against the “force” and “implications” of the consent decree. “Myths” were allowed to fester among the ranks without proper “counterbalancing” statements of the intentions of police reform, particularly in regard to reality that it is in the SPD’s best interests long term to improve its behavior. The report also indicated that police supervisors rarely monitored the activities of their officers to insure that no unconstitutional police misconduct was occurring on duty. 

The monitor was frustrated by the fact that records were either poorly kept or not at all. Arrest records were apparently “organized” in a way that made difficult or impossible to access. The reported also noted that while use-of-force briefings were held by the department to discuss individual incidents of force, rarely was such use questioned as being unnecessary. It also noted that an officer’s actions leading up to a UOF incident was rarely discussed “with vigor.” In the first three months of 2013, 121 UOF incidents were “examined,” none which were deemed “out of policy” by the UOF board. It was determined that it was not the monitor’s “place” to question its findings, only to observe if the SPD was complying with the consent decree in “good faith.”

The SPD had been encouraged to use a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) when police were confronted with an individual obviously impaired by a mental or psychological condition; in the past such people were often simply shot and killed if deemed a “threat.” The report appeared to indicate that police rarely notified such teams in appropriate circumstances, and seemed to prefer to refer to them in derogatory terms. Only 40 percent of officers received any form of CIT training. 

The monitor noted with some concern that the SPD Fire Arms Review Board (FRB) showed even less willingness to treat seriously its responsibilities. There was clear evidence that conclusions were pre-ordained, and that evidence was clearly skewed and even manufactured in favor of officers (it should be recalled that in the John T. Williams shooting, the police union concocted a story with Officer Ian Birk that had to be withdrawn when video evidence and witnesses contradicting their story appeared). It was noted that the FRB did not consider actions leading up to the use of deadly force, only that just prior to the pulling of the trigger. 

In the monitor’s second semi-annual report, dated December 2013, the question was did police conduct improve. For the most part, it did not. Rather than seriously set-up an adequate data processing system utilizing professional outside companies, the SPD only jerry-rigged its current system in-house, an apparent effort to “control” access to information.  FRB reviews failed to implement a single recommendation by the monitor. FRB investigations continued to refuse to conduct “full, fair and impartial” analysis of shooting incidents. The scope of “investigations” continued to be narrow and skewed to find no fault in officers, and questions by the monitoring team were always met with hostility and uncooperativeness. 

The FRB investigations continued to violate the spirit of the court-ordered reform by refusing to consider an officer’s actions leading up to a shooting incident. Even more shockingly, a clearly “out-of-policy” firearms incident can be claimed to be “accidental” by an officer, and the board will not investigate further. The board also continued to prohibit anyone from the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) to be present at any of their hearings.  

Although the monitor noted in its first report that UOF briefings were at least held to discuss specific incidents, there was little else positive to note. When UOF incident reports—when they were recorded at all—were examined, they were found to be incomplete, lacking in detail and even apparently falsified. No meaningful analysis of data could be done, and this seems to be deliberate, given the inadequate data entry software used. It was also noted that for the first 10 months of 2013, 357 UOF incidents were examined (and clearly nowhere near the actual total during that period), of which only 12 were referred to the OPA. The monitor noted that there continued to be active and obstinate obstruction to these referrals. 

Equally troubling was that recordings from required in-camera video devices were frequently “missing” from UOF and FRB “investigations.” The SPD’s IT unit claimed that it was “impossible” to develop a simple process in which an officer can activate the ICV when he leaves the station. However, the company that developed the software for the ICV contradicted this claim. It was also noted that problems with the ICV system were allowed to persist, apparently to use as an excuse not to provide video evidence of questionable incidents.

Officers are required to wear microphones which must be on at all times (save during “private” conversations). However, the SPD apparently uses devices that have large and easily accessible “mute” buttons, with the “on” buttons smaller and harder to access. This again seems to be one of those “police friendly” gimmicks to give officers “excuses” to avoid responsibility (by “accidentally” hitting the mute button). 

The report goes on in a similar vein, pages and pages of it.

As for the OPA, in its Fourth Quarter, 2013 report it notes that it received complaints against 81 SPD officers, or 4.5 percent of the total. 16 percent of complaints were “sustained.” But this is not what it seems, and the OPA’s credibility must be called into question here. Nearly all of these “sustained” complaints had nothing to do with misconduct by police toward citizens, but “inappropriate” conduct by officers reported by their own supervisors, such as being drunk or damaging equipment while off-duty, or leaving work without authorization. Complaints by citizens were either dismissed as “lawful” actions, or “unsupported”—likely because of the missing video or audio evidence that the monitoring team noted—or with the recommendation of “further training.”

What does all of this mean? The SPD rank-and-file continues to actively oppose reform, and is apparently trying to blackmail the city by giving the impression of “slacking off” as a silent protest. The SPD is continuing to thumb its nose at the consent decree ordering it to reform officers’ behavior in use-of-force and firearms incidents, and that minorities continue to be the principle targets of these actions.

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